Perceptions of heterosexual activities by heterosexual individuals.

Author:Goins, Laura


In sexual relationships, individuals rely on various sources for information about which acts their sexual partner(s) prefer. The cues about partners' sexual preferences may be apparent when individuals are interacting with their partners, in the behaviors they engage in and even an individuals' internal dialog about their experience. Sexual script theory (Simon & Gagnon, 1986) examines sexual activity as a social interaction where the participants follow a script that provides them with meaning and direction. Sexual scripts inform participants of the situation (when and where they should have sex), the actors (with whom people have sex), and the behavior (what and why they do sexual things) (Gagnon & Simon, 1973, p. 17; Laumann, Gagnon, Michael & Michaels, 1994, p. 6). Scripts provide direction to participants to as to an appropriate sequence of sexual behavior, influencing their interactions at three possible levels: intrapsychic, interpersonal, and at the cultural level.

In sexual interactions, cultural scripts are those that are shared by a group and are less likely to illustrate individual variation given that the meanings are created and shaped by the socializing agents (e.g. media, educators, researchers, etc.). Interpersonal scripts take into account the expectations and behaviors of the other person and they essentially account for what cultural scripts lack. Intrapsychic scripts are put into action as the individual begins connecting cultural scripts and interpersonal scripts. Because cultural scripts are shared by individuals within a culture, they are likely to show less variation across individuals than both interpersonal and intrapsychic scripts (Gagnon, 1990).

Sexual script theory, as applied to sexual activities, has tended to focus on the sequence of behaviors rather than the specific sexual activities that individuals prefer. For example, in discussing sexual scripts, Jemail and Geer (1977) reported that there is high agreement among individuals in terms of the sequence of heterosexual activities that are most likely to occur in a heterosexual encounter (e.g., kissing followed by manual stimulation of the breasts, etc.). Furthermore, in their study, Jemail and Geer demonstrated a fairly high degree of agreement between men and women when examining sexual activities sequences, suggesting that they may be following a learned, cultural script. Similarly, Rose and Frieze (1993) provided evidence for a "first date" cultural script that prescribes the sequence of actions taken by individuals. More recently, Muehlenhard and Shippee (2010) used sexual script theory to look at how orgasms fit into the sequence of sexual activity and how this script influences when people fake orgasms. This sequence can be culturally prescribed (cultural script), but may also vary from individual to individual (interpersonal and intrapsychic scripts).

Sexual scripts may also be helpful in understanding the meanings individuals assign to sexual activity. In their research, MacNeil & Byers (2009), suggest that sexual script theory may be useful in better understanding the disclosure of sexual likes/dislikes. Other authors, however, have suggested that discussing sexual issues is difficult for many individuals (Anderson, Kunkel & Dennis, 2011; Fisher, Miller, Byrne, & White, 1980), even those who are dating (Byers & Demmons, 1999). When the sexual interaction involves individuals who are relative strangers (e.g., hookups) one would expect sexual communication to be even more problematic. In these situations, it's likely that individuals' sexual behavior will be guided by their own sexual scripts which may show some variability across individuals.

These studies lead us to inquire how sexual script theory might be useful in understanding individuals' perceptions of specific sexual activities. For example, do individuals perceive specific activities similarly or might oral sex be perceived as romantic by some individuals but not by others? As such, it is useful to study how individuals perceive or assign meaning to various sexual activities--something that few researchers have investigated. One study (Garcia, Cavalie, Goins, & King, 2008) investigated how enjoyable heterosexual individuals perceived specific heterosexual activities, as well as how much they perceived the other gender would enjoy those same sexual activities. The authors reported that even though men and women tended to agree on which sexual activities they enjoyed the most, men tended to rate the activities as more enjoyable than women. Furthermore, a similar trend was found for people's attributions to the other gender--whereas men and women were fairly accurate in predicting which activities the other gender would enjoy the most, they were relatively inaccurate in predicting the actual level of enjoyment. While useful in beginning to understand how much people enjoy or are aroused by specific sexual activities (along with Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994; and Purnine, Carey, & Jorgensen, 1994), these authors did not look at the various meanings that are assigned to these activities--the meanings that may lead us to understand why they are perceived as enjoyable and thus part of our sexual scripts. For example, it is possible that some people are not aroused by anal intercourse because they perceive it as deviant or they simply may not perceive it as romantic. According to Gagnon (1990), the sexual script is a determinant of the feelings (pleasure, desire, disgust, etc.) that individuals experience when engaging in sexual activity.

With an understanding of sexual scripts as our guide, perhaps we can begin to explore the possible meanings individuals might assign to sexual activities. While perceptions will vary across individuals, few dimensions will capture those feelings Gagnon (1990) noted. Eroticism, Romanticism, and Deviancy are useful dimensions in attempting to examine the meanings, or feelings, individuals might associate with particular sexual activities.

Eroticism, as a dimension, refers to acts perceived as arousing or pleasurable. Erotic acts are an especially important dimension to examine, as 'pleasure' and/or 'arousal' are primary consequences of sexual activity and a major reason why people engage in sexual activities. These authors (e.g., Hill & Preston, 1997; Leigh, 1989; Meston & Buss, 2007) have reported that pleasure/arousal was one of the most frequently mentioned reasons for engaging in sexuality.

In examining romanticism and sexuality, especially as it relates to gender differences, there appears to be a higher correlation between romanticism and eroticism for women than for men. For example, Kimmel and Plante (2002), as well as Zurbriggen and Yost (2004), reported that there is a higher romantic and emotional component in the sexual fantasies of women than in men's fantasies. Thompson (1994) looked at teenage girls' narratives about sex and romance and found that narratives about sex typically were closely tied to romance. It's also the case that for many individuals, especially women, there is a close relationship between sexuality and romantic involvement (Hendrick & Hendrick, 2004).

Deviancy has clearly been established in relation to sexuality in the literature. In a study by Garcia and Carrigan (1998) on sexual self-perception, individuals were asked to list traits that could be used to describe people's sexuality and the traits were then organized into various dimensions--one of which was deviancy. While this study dealt with traits that described people, not activities, researchers of Attribution Theory (e.g. Weiner, 1992) have shown that people are described in a particular way because of inferences about the activities in which they engage...

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